New technologies are currently turning whole sections of the economy on their heads. Logistics and especially warehousing, the essential component in the supply chain, are no exception to the rule. Combining automation, the internet of things, drones, 3D printing and innovative applications, digital developments allow us to glimpse what the future warehouse will look like: smarter, more connected, automated and robotised than ever.
The digital revolution is coming to all areas of the economy. For the supply chain this means more process automation, robotisation and better communications as well as increasingly advanced collaboration and interconnection between all the players, systems and tools in the value chain. As a crucial component in this chain, warehouses are experiencing these changes close-up and are transforming to become more intelligent and connected. This is necessary for them to be able to respond to the increasingly specialised needs of consumers, as well as to face the major challenges set by e-commerce and marketplace type platforms.
Using the wealth of available data
One of the first challenges for the future warehouse is to ensure compatibility of all the IT systems that help it to function. If the correct systems are put in place, the warehouse can become a real data mine. The data flows it generates will continue to spread to all levels of the logistical ecosystems, especially with the advent of connected mobile terminals that both transmit and receive information in real time.
Warehouse 4.0 must therefore allow the collection, synchronising, structuring, analysing and sharing of these data, both internally and with external partners in the logistics chain. This will improve communication and collaboration between these players and also make managing the inventory, staff, machines and so on more effective, coordinated and flexible. Neither is there any doubt that Blockchain technology will have its say on reliability and security issues associated with data exchange.
The advent of the internet of things and AI
According to a recent Technavio bureau study, the global market for the internet of things in warehousing management should grow by more than 30% between 2017 and 2021. For Capgemini Consulting, between 26 and 80 billion things will be connected by 2020. Already technologies such as RFID, Bluetooth tags, intelligent sensors and NFC (Near Field Contact) are indispensable for changing inventory management, for example, because it makes it possible to see stock levels in real time without stopping warehouse work. Soon the internet of things will be everywhere and involved in all the stages of the supply chain, providing better traceability, smarter management, productivity gains, and so on. Simultaneously, artificial intelligence (AI) also threatens to transform the look of machines that equip warehouses, in particular with the help of "machine learning" that will allow systems to adjust their response to any given situation.
Robotics: the (very) near future
The future of warehousing will also see an increase in new and increasingly efficient, automated equipment. Driver-less wagons, capable of moving on their own, avoiding obstacles and even asking what they should "do". High-velocity sorters and automatically steered vehicles will move into the supply chain to receive products, prepare orders and carry out loading operations. How long until drones are counting the stock? A few years ago, imagining drones flying about inside a warehouse would have seemed crazy, today this scenario is no longer the preserve of science-fiction films. Even if these technologies are still quite immature, some people are ready to bet on flying robots. The future also lies in 3D printing which will allow on-demand printing of slow-moving product lines, for example, thus avoiding the need to stock them.
Advice: development, not total revolution
A considerable number of specialists agree that at this stage, we need to adapt without necessarily changing everything. Indeed, technologies develop rapidly and have yet to reach their full maturity. So it is hard to see into the future, all the more so since the supply chain must develop as a "whole". But there is no doubt that new technologies will transform the look of the future warehouse.
The art of negotiating payment terms with suppliers
Cash management is an SME's frontline weapon, and payment terms are a key means of keeping it under control – providing companies proactively open negotiations with their suppliers. But this solution remains underutilised by entrepreneurs
Cash flow difficulties are the number one cause of company bankruptcy in Belgium. Business owners face a constant battle to stay in control and maintain the balance of their inflows and outflows. Negotiating payment terms is one of the levers that can be employed: shortening them for customers while extending them for suppliers. In Belgium, the statutory deadline between companies is 30 days. Yet the reality can be different, since either trading partner may deviate from the rule. Where one of the parties is in a dominant position, the other is often obliged to accept the conditions it imposes... meaning its payment term becomes longer. Everything is negotiable, however, even with "big" suppliers, as long as you formalise the situation and ensure you protect your business relationship.
Who is your supplier?
They say information is power, and there is some truth in this. Indeed, the more you know about your "opponent", the more you will be able to turn the tables. How are the company's finances, and what is its cash position? Is it experiencing difficulties? Where is it placed on the market, particularly in relation to its competitors? What is your dependency ratio in relation to this partner? How does it make payments, and what is its purchase history? The answers to these questions will allow you to take up better positions in the negotiations, and find the best angle to launch an attack that catches the other side by surprise. Specialised websites, data banks, word of mouth (the competition): all means are justified in order to find out more!
What do you want to gain?
And a resulting question: what are you willing to put on the table to achieve your objective? In other words, you need to be properly prepared and establish a strategy regarding what you are willing to concede (and how much this will cost you) and what you absolutely want to gain in return. Remember that the other party has presumably not requested anything, and potentially has little to gain. Therefore, you cannot arrive empty-handed. Are you willing to order larger volumes in order to extend your payment terms? Can you envisage a long-term contractual commitment? Could you contemplate paying more in return for spreading your debits further? Imagine you are playing poker: clearly, you should keep your cards close to your chest. Wait for the right time to show your negotiating partner that you are prepared to make concessions.
How can you negotiate successfully?
The art of negotiating is a difficult skill. However well prepared you are, keep the following principles in mind:
- Even if you have brought a proposal to the table, listen to the other side and pay attention to detail so that you can react quickly.
- Do not be frightened of bearing your teeth a little, even if you are concerned about spoiling the business relationship with your supplier. Stand your ground and mention what the competition can offer you, for example.
- You must control how you communicate, so that you avoid giving the impression that you have cash management problems. Emphasise that payment delays do not help anyone, and that it would be better to agree on a reasonable and sustainable schedule.
- If your business relationship is established, mention your positive partnership and your desire to see this continue.
- During discussions, regularly refer to how far you have come and your shared progress to date. This positive tone will be well received.
- If the negotiations stall, try to resolve the difficulty by pulling out a trump card, for example (i.e. a concession).
- Remember: a good agreement is balanced, and leaves neither party feeling wronged. So do not be too greedy: the outcome must be worthwhile.
- Are you happy with the situation? Move to finalise the deal, either by accepting what is on offer or by finally opting for a fair compromise.
The conversation manager: essential and permanently online
Coordinating a company's social media strategy is a task in itself. Who will you use to handle this? And what about involved customers who suddenly get too involved?
Because of social media, the role of a traditional marketing manager is evolving more and more towards being a conversation manager: someone who facilitates consumer communication. This includes communication between customers themselves and communication between the customers and the company.
Some key tasks in the conversation manager's job description are:
- Uniting and activating ‘branded fans’, as they will recommend the brand to friends and family.
- Listening to what people are saying about your company and seeking their active contribution to your products and strategy.
- Creating content worth distributing in order to encourage discussions.
- Managing these discussions.
- Ensuring your work is very customer-oriented and customer-friendly through customer care, i.e.by responding faster and providing more than what the customer is expecting.
Some companies are big enough to hire a full-time conversation manager. In other cases another employee will take on this role part-time. A third possibility is using a specialised company.
Caroline Hombroukx, conversation manager at content marketing company Head Office:
“No matter which option you go for, communication in social media must come across as personal. There is definitely a reason why large companies such as Telenet and Belgacom have created a fictitious person to deal with their customers; Charlotte and Eva respectively. The conversation manager also has to know the company and its social media strategy very well. It may therefore be an advantage if someone in the company itself takes on that role. That person is right at the source and so can distribute information, take a quick picture and post it online, etc.
This task is not for everyone. A conversation manager must have experience with social media, have fluent communication and writing style and must be empathetic, positive and solution-oriented in his or her dealings with customers. Prior training is not a luxury, because the employee must be very aware of the company's content strategy. The audience is varied and unpredictable. You have to decide time and time again whether certain content is or is not suitable for your target group. It is also not a nine-to-five job: the online world keeps on turning even at night or at the weekend."
The advantage of hiring a conversation manager from an external company is that in principle the expertise is present. In that case the challenge is to know the company to such an extent that the customer has the impression that he or she is talking to a real employee.
Getting angry is out of the question
Traditional marketing and advertising are a one-way street. If they do not work, they are a waste of money. However, they are not likely to result in angry comments. A company venturing out on Facebook, Twitter or other social media, can be sure to receive comments and reactions. Including negative ones. Caroline Hombroukx:
“On social media the consumer is suddenly right next to you banging the table. It is important to respond well to that. Getting angry yourself is out of the question. You need to respond by showing that you understand and you are taking the question or complaint seriously. Everyone following the discussion must see that the company is providing a quick answer and is trying to find a solution. If a mistake has been made, you can acknowledge this openly and honestly. You can also show the problem as something positive: as an opportunity to improve your brand, product or service. Of course you must find a suitable solution in the end. If the person sharing the complaint becomes too negative, you have to try and divert him or her to a private channel: a private message on Facebook, a direct message on Twitter, an e-mail or a phone call."
An enthusiastic, understanding response also works well if the consumer is sharing something positive about your brand, company or service. Thanking the consumer strengthens the bond between the company and the customer. Caroline Hombroukx:
"The dialogue with the target group is an opportunity to improve your product or operations through constructive criticism. Make customers feel involved. It creates a strong relationship. If you are publishing a magazine or starting a poster campaign for instance, you can let customers choose the best layout or title from three options posted on Facebook, for example. Everything that engages customers can only strengthen their commitment."
Social media dos and don'ts
- The consumer is always right (even when this isn't the case).
- Be open, honest and friendly.
- Use a personal style.
- Respond quickly to any questions or reactions.
- Stay positive and be understanding.
- Do all you can to engage your customers.
- Come up with a free gift every now and then.
- As a brand, try to avoid political topics.
Social media and e-commerce: opportunities and risks
The huge popularity of social media brings new opportunities, but has resulted in some new stumbling blocks as well. What are the most recent trends? And how should you respond to them?
Social media such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, etc. seem cutting edge, but the principle is as old as the hills: word of mouth, sometimes abbreviated as WOM in marketing. Even in the heyday of the mass media, positive recommendations from neighbours, family and friends remained important to a company's success. Newspapers, magazines and television advertising were the first channel introducing a new product to consumers, but word-of-mouth turned out to play a decisive role in what matters most: consumer behaviour. Consumers shared experiences and thereby affected the behaviour of their fellow consumers. Today, more than ever, they do so through social media.
Consumers persuading consumers
Social media are the contemporary, more sophisticated and super-fast successor of old-fashioned word-of-mouth advertising. They are a catalyst. Social networks allow people to exchange views, share experiences, express their dissatisfaction, etc. more quickly than ever.
In addition, more and more consumers are opting for a "social search" over search engines such as Google to find information. They consciously do not search the entire internet, but approach their friends on Facebook or contacts on LinkedIn or Twitter. It speeds up the search and makes the result more reliable. The idea is that if X thinks it is good/nice/beautiful, we will probably think it is good/nice/beautiful too. There is also the option to ask questions and really discuss the product or service you need information about.
Consumers talk about all sorts of products (offline and online), from new detergents to new car models. And it is not just young people who are sharing their experiences about products and brands. Young and old, male or female: everyone does it. All these recommendations between consumers are worth gold.
We can illustrate this with an example: computer manufacturer Dell assumes that 25% of its customers choose their brand after it has been recommended by another user. The average purchase value per customer is about 210 dollars. Based on this amount, the value of every recommendation is estimated at 42 dollars. The more consumers Dell can convince to buy its products, the more money it makes.
However, the reverse is equally true: bad word-of-mouth advertising can have devastating effects. Particularly in this age of social media, a bad reputation does not take long to spread.
Social media in 2014
Perhaps Facebook will no longer exist in ten years' time, but it will most certainly have been replaced by something else. Social media are here to stay. It is therefore important for companies to build a good social media strategy. They can start by thinking about which channel they want to use for which content and objective. What do you need to take into account?
- Content (the message to the consumer) is still the key part, but the importance of segmentation is increasing. The audience is varied, so not all content and every channel is suitable for everyone. As a company, it is best to divide your target audience into sub-target groups. You can then choose specific content and a channel per sub-target group.
- Create real-time content: define a number of key moments in the year in advance and use these wisely. The World Cup, back to school, the summer holidays, etc. are all events that happen regularly and companies can respond to in a clever way. The trick is to find a good link between the key moment and your product. Be creative in this respect. If a school bag brand presents its content at the end of August, it will have to use an original approach to avoid coming across as predictable.
- Social media are predominantly a mobile story: most consumers are switching to smartphones and tablets. It is no coincidence that the four best-known social networks are also in the list of most popular mobile apps: Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter. In any case, your content (both on the website and on social media) will have to be mobile-friendly.
- The importance of customer care is only increasing. Consumers will now use social media more than ever to find information, ask questions and make comments.
E-commerce: the 3 steps to success
Which stages should a company that is venturing into e-commerce go through? And how do you avoid customers and employees getting stressed and frustrated in the process?
Phase 1: managing the channel conflict
When a manufacturer, distributor or importer starts selling the products they previously only sold to shops online themselves, the shops may experience that as a channel conflict. Their supplier has now become a direct competitor benefiting from low start-up costs as well as more customer convenience. But does the supplier have a choice? If the supplier does not sell online, some customers will go to a seller who does. The solution? Benny Sintobin, Manager of e-commerce specialist Frucon²:
"The channel conflict is a perception debate that is more emotional than rational. E-commerce is unavoidable, so you had better adjust. The roughest edges of the channel conflict can be smoothed out by being a ‘friendly’ online store. With that I mean that you have to approach it correctly, with empathy for the party that may be at a disadvantage. You have to be bold enough to tell the customers of your distribution channel in advance what you are planning and which rules you are going to follow. If you start up everything on the quiet, you will cause frustration and negative emotions."
And these are totally unnecessary, because the new situation can be favourable to the distributor or shop as well. The distributor's online sales channel can also refer to his customer's website or shop, for example. Benny Sintobin:
"Take a bicycle manufacturer offering bicycles to customers online, for example. The website could allow consumers to combine certain materials and colours online in order to create a personalised model. The bicycle can be sent by courier, but can also be delivered to a retailer near the customer for the customer's collection. In that case the retailer will have to be satisfied with a smaller margin and the fact that he has gained a new customer, who will come back later to buy a helmet or a bicycle bag or to have his bicycle serviced. The other members of his family will follow his example for their bicycles and accessories. That way everyone wins."
Downward price spiral
When you say channel conflict, people almost automatically think about a price war between shops competing with online sales channels offering the same products at a lower price. According to Benny Sintobin it is therefore important to put a fair, correct price on the products:
"When manufacturers engage in e-commerce themselves, they set the product's retail price. The price is there online in black and white. In that case shops can rarely afford to charge a higher price. That is why the pricing must be correct, so that shops can still earn a living.
In practice a channel conflict often causes the reverse phenomenon: it is usually not the manufacturer, but the shops starting the downward price spiral. That is in fact the biggest threat to e-commerce: the shop trying to hurt the supplier. Major players striving towards market dominance can afford to destroy their profit margins. However, smaller manufacturers and brands cannot compete in such a price war. This proves once again the importance of making good e-commerce arrangements."
Phase 2: geographical expansion
Once the channel conflict has been well and truly digested, it is time for the next phase: tapping into new markets. For larger SMEs e-commerce is often a perfect way to gain more of a market share. For example, take a Belgian brand that achieved a nice market share in Belgium by selling in retail points as well as through its own online sales channel. Perhaps the brand has developed some brand awareness abroad through a couple of shops in the capital, for example. Benny Sintobin:
"In that case it is entirely possible that some consumers abroad know the brand already, but are unable to get to the shop because of the distance. It would be very unfortunate not to take control of that potential channel yourself and to leave it to Amazon, would it not? Online your products are available to all customers. Conclusion: expansion abroad with an e-commerce channel could be the first low-hanging fruit that is therefore easy to pick."
Phase 3: reinventing your business model
The third phase in e-commerce is a leap in the dark. Company thinking is traditionally product-, market- and wholesale-oriented. Take a company manufacturing or importing pots and pans, for example. That product is part of the world of cooking and dining, but still the sales strategy traditionally focuses completely on the product. However, the online activities offer opportunities to change tack and create an entire world around the particular product. You can work with other companies in that respect: a publisher to create content about dining, a candle manufacturer, a herbs specialist, a table linens manufacturer, a supermarket offering home delivery, etc. Benny Sintobin:
"Around Valentine's day or other key moments of the year you can create content and an entire world where those pots and pans belong. In that case what you sell online becomes more of an experience than a product. The effect is further strengthened if each of the partner companies present that experience on their sites as well. That way you enter each other's customer base and target groups. And you also immediately make sure that your social media really start to work for you. Consumers will tend to like a Valentine's experience more than just a set of pots and pans. In other words, you become a "love brand" rather than just an everyday product."
3 damaging e-commerce blunders
- You fail to inform the customers of your distribution channel of your e-commerce plans and you do not agree on clear rules. Clear arrangements make good business partners.
- You fail to gain sufficient support from all your company's employees. Non-believers and sceptics are best convinced with figures and orders. And you should make sure that dreamers keep both feet on the ground: Rome was not built in a day.
- You focus on bonus systems rewarding targets in a single sales channel. Commercial employees getting a little extra for the sales figures in actual shops are not happy with rising online sales figures, even though they benefit the entire company.